Tenchu 2: Birth of the Assassins Preview

In Birth of the Assassins, you're an honorable ninja (one of three, including the two from the original game), who only kills evil men and/or creatures.

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Activision brought an early version of Tenchu 2: Birth of the Assassins for the PlayStation by the videogames.com offices recently, and much has changed from the original. The name of the game for the Tenchu sequel is still assassination. The new game is a prequel actually, but since it doesn't take place so far back as to predate the invention of murder, execution still comes into play. In Birth of the Assassins, you're an honorable ninja (one of three, including the two from the original game), who only kills evil men and/or creatures.

The game is set four years before the events of the original. The young ninja Rikamaru and Ayame (and a third, whom Activision is mysteriously mum about) are assigned to destroy those who have betrayed their master, Lord Gohda, and retrieve his stolen sword for him.

As before, your goal is to sneak through the environments without being seen, perform various tasks set by your master, and take out anyone who gets in your way. This time, though, according to Activision, you'll have more complex mission objectives that are distinctly different from before, including tasks of stopping enemy invasions, tracking foes, and guarding Lord Gohda's palace.

Without a doubt, the stealth element of Tenchu made the original game so appealing, and Activision says this feature remains the focus of the sequel. Using the R1 button in the first game, you could hide or flatten your character's body out against walls. When you approached a corner while flush against the wall, the game camera moved to give you a glimpse of the environment, showing you anyone waiting for you around the bend, hopefully with his or her back to you. But creeping behind walls wasn't the only way to set about town. The characters were well equipped with grappling hooks and a never-ending supply of rope. When you selected the hook, the perspective changed to first person, and a thin, red target appeared in the center of the screen. Once fired, the hook would shoot forward, and the player would be yanked quickly along after it. What's the advantage? Running along the far-less-populated rooftops was a much faster, if less confrontational, way of moving about. There were also more than a dozen tools in addition to the grappling hook at our disposal. At the beginning of each mission, a limited inventory of items - such as poison rice treats (to paralyze dogs and guards), smoke bombs, sleeping potions, explosives, and throwing stars (which use the same targeting system as the hook) - was available for you to select from.

The sequel promises a greater number of ninja weapons and abilities, such as the blowgun, blinding dust, exploding arrows, fiery ninja magic, and invisibility. Mastering new skills such as setting traps and swimming is required if you hope to survive. Swimming opens up yet another mode by which lets you sneak up and surprise people: You can do it from below them. And this skill is not only for attacking - you'll need to swim to access remote areas like underground caves. Oxygen meter running low? No worries. You'll acquire a hollow reed to breathe through later on in the game.

A common complaint about the original game was that it was fairly easy to complete quickly, as it only contained about ten levels. Tenchu 2, however, will feature 32 levels: twelve for Ayame and Rikamaru, and an additional eight for the third ninja, each character will have his own storyline that ties the stages together. You'll also be able to create your own levels with the built-in mission editor. Generic surroundings with themes such as "castle" and "office" are provided for you to edit - including setting AI behavior and item locations. All of that, combined with the fact that you can save up to 50 stages on a memory card, means you'll be able to tool around quite a bit - and with some depth.

Graphically, the game appears to have better resolution with more detailed environments, and the character models look more solid than before. The producer also pointed out that the draw-in distance has now been increased to roughly 28 meters from the original's 16, which translates into less clipping than before. Levels now take place during midday and dusk, as opposed to the perpetual night-enshrouded gameplay of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. In Tenchu 2's scenarios we observed visual effects that made the environments appear more realistic, such as bamboo trees falling after being inadvertently sliced during combat and blood from an enemy slowly dispersing in water.

Other details include the fact that each character will have six or seven distinct stealth kills. You will be able to search your fallen enemies' bodies for items and drag and hide these corpses as well. In fact, you'll need to do this to cover you tracks, because if a guard finds a dead comrade, he'll begin actively pursuing you in the level. Joe Fielder's hands-on impressions

Few people played the original Tenchu more often and more obsessively than I did, so I had eagerly awaited a chance to get my hands on the demo of the sequel. Before I played it, I had some concerns about the game's new look based on some of the screenshots I'd seen. The characters appeared smaller in scale, and it didn't look as though there were enough structures in the environments to climb up on or hide behind.

The demo put my worries to rest.

One level of the game is playable in this first version - an enemy camp filled with guards and evil ninja. The constant rain, thunder, and lightning work well to make you feel as though you're in an environment rather than in a simple game level. The music has been replaced entirely by sound effects at this point. While the soundtrack in the original game was fantastic, I didn't miss it in the sequel. Chimes stretched across wires are hidden in the tall grass, and if you're unwary enough to trip over one, the sound they make will likely draw some unwanted attention to you.

The environments are far less blocky than before. Hills build gradually or cut off unexpectedly, creating a world that is much more multitiered. Some areas are even cut off from the rest, causing you to have to find a path through the woods to remote sections of the level.

Those who've played the first game will pick up the control in seconds. One new addition to the setup is that you can push bodies by walking over them. It doesn't work too well right now, so hopefully it will be improved. Having to hit a button in order to have to drag a fallen enemy into a corner doesn't seem like it would be unnecessary.

Guards react to sounds much more actively now, and they yell to each other once you engage them. If you make the mistake of letting yourself be seen by one, you may soon have to deal with two. They also seem much more aware than before. Sentries are located in positions where it's a challenge to sneak up on them.

The demo ends with a confrontation with a new evil ninja nemesis, who seems fairly similar to the Crow-like antagonist in Tenchu: SA. After you trade a few blows with him, he takes off, commenting that you're good but not enough of a challenge yet.

It doesn't seem like pop-up or wonky camera angles are going to be as much of a problem this time out, which is great. I'm pretty excited about the game now, since it's looking like it'll turn out unique enough to feel fresh, while not so different as to seem unfamiliar.

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